How To Apply To Harvard Business School

HBS Classroom


There is nothing worse than getting your heart set on a school, diving into the application, and pouring everything you have into gaining admission … only to realize you never really had a chance in the first place. Some schools are just less tolerant of certain weaknesses and they look for specific strengths. At HBS, the biggest filter that will screen out an applicant is age. Most people know that HBS skews young, but few realize just how rigid the school has become when it comes to age range. Over 60% of the Fall 2013 entering class was less than four years removed from their college graduation date at the time classes started in September.  If you are 29 years old and thinking of applying, you should probably just move the search along.

Other red flags at HBS include some of the usual suspects – GPA and GMAT. What makes the academic profile unique, however, is that Harvard tends to flip the two numbers in terms of its tolerance to absorb a low mark. Most elite MBA programs are least forgiving of a “low” GMAT score (we consider that to be anything below a 680) when considering application components, while they might be more willing to forgive a low GPA – especially if college is well in the rearview mirror and there is good work experience to suggest maturity and discipline. HBS tends to be more tolerant of the occasional low (or low-ish) GMAT score and less tolerant of a wayward GPA. There are some practical reasons for this that extend beyond philosophy (although you could also argue that HBS has a bit of a “we’re Harvard, we’re not going to have our choices dictated by a test score” philosophy as well).

The reason HBS can sometimes roll the dice on a lower GMAT score has to do with the size of the school. In short, HBS is a monster MBA program, with nine sections and over 900 students in each incoming class. With HBS 2+2 proving to be a sustained success, there is talk that a tenth section may be added in the near future. The place is swimming with MBA students. Given the sheer size of the class, HBS can often “take a chance” on someone with a lower GMAT score, because it won’t impact the overall average as dramatically as it would at a smaller b-school.

Consider the following two programs: HBS and Yale SOM (again). Yale SOM features a 2016 class of 323 students and an average GMAT of 720. HBS features a class of 935 and an average GMAT at 730. Clearly, both schools are used to bringing in an impressive group of test-takers. However, HBS simply has more room to roll the dice on a few students who don’t fit that description.  Imagine both schools are nine students away from filling their admit pools, imagine that every student they admit will enroll, and imagine they are both one point over their averages going into these final decisions.  Both schools have nine highly accomplished, highly personable, passionate, and otherwise deserving and amazing students picked out – all with GPAs below the 660 mark that signals the bottom 20th percentile.  We’ll say that this group has an average score of 630. Here is how each school sees its GMAT average impacted by saying “yes” to these nine students:

  • HBS’ 730 becomes an average of 729.  In other words, right at the school’s average for the class of 2015 .
  • Yale SOM’s 720 becomes an average of 717.  In other word, a three-point drop from the class of 2015 and enough damage to sink a few spot in the U.S. News rankings.

Still think Harvard’s size doesn’t grant them the ability to take some risks?  And that doesn’t even account for the massive advantage afforded by the difference in yield rates between the two schools.  Again, not to get too “inside” here, but another reason that a school like Harvard can be more aggressive than a school like Yale in admitting “less qualified” students is that they can better project who is showing up.  Uncertain yield makes it even harder to stray from robust GMAT scores, because a school like Yale SOM only enrolls 10 of every 20 students it admits.  If Yale admits nine students with low GMAT scores and 11 with high scores and only the low students show up … the enrollment management committee is suddenly in serious trouble.  HBS, on the other hand, knows that nine of every 10 students are enrolling, so they can make easy projections with a very minor standard deviation.  If this sounds like boring, inside baseball admissions talk, just know that nothing – nothing – is more important than understanding what goes on in the minds of the human beings who control this process.  Your fate is in their hands.  You simply must know what pressures they feel and what challenges they face in doing their jobs if you want to do your job effectively.

As for GPA, there is also a very practical reason why HBS skews high and it isn’t just because they want to protect their sparkling, law school-like 3.67 average (although that is part of it, to be sure) and it has everything to do with the age issue discussed above.  Given that HBS is admitting a ton of students who are one, two, three, and four years removed from their senior year of college, it makes sense that undergraduate grades remain more relevant than at a business school focusing on applicants with five-to-seven years of work experience.  Put quite simply: college happened too recently and there has been less time for a candidate to be transformed from underachiever to shooting star in the work force.  If you flaked out in college and posted a mediocre GPA (especially in a mediocre major), HBS is not the place you want to apply.

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